Part III: The Power of Place

Co-Designing the Resilient City
A conversation with Riccardo Luca Conti, architect and co-founder of
CatalyticAction, based in the UK. (In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2.)

The Basma playground project for the Al-Makassed school, which accepts Syrian refugee children in Ghazze, Lebanon. The playground was built on a formerly vacant lot of wild vegetation and garbage, and is now a permanent recreational and educational space serving the school and town (Source: CatalyticAction, 2017).

For the third piece in our series on why the physicality of cities matter, we turn our attention to the city as a space for resilience. While our world becomes increasingly urbanized, it also needs to become more responsive. There are currently 68.5 million forcibly displaced people globally, more than six times the number of displaced in the wake of World War II (UNHCR 2018). For the 25.4 million forced to leave their home countries as refugees, 70% live in private residences within urban areas (UNHCR 2012). Refugee camps are also becoming more urbanized, as conflicts endure and people re-create sophisticated urban economies from their home towns and cities (UNHCR 2018). For example, in the Zataari Camp in Jordan, opened in 2012 and home to 80,000 Syrian refugees, residents built a main street of restaurants and shops from recycled materials, giving the camp the function and feel of a permanent town (Zataari’s entrepreneurs were featured in Monocle Radio in 2013). In this way, the medium of urban design itself has emerged as a source resilience. Stepping in for the top-down crisis management model that emerged post WWII, refugee communities themselves, sometimes in collaboration with designers, are integrating and innovating new ways of making urban areas their home. Design practices like CatalyticAction have emerged to advance a new model of socially-responsive architecture in the context of new crisis conditions. We chat with one of its co-founders, Riccardo Luca Conti, about how design can empower and heal.

Rendering for the Basma playgound project: hand-drawn renderings add to the accessibility of the design process (Source: CatalyticAction, 2017).

Tell us how you got started — what problems did you set out to solve through architecture and design?
The idea was quite simple: to try to empower communities through spatial interventions. In 2014, Joana Dabaj, Laura Antona, and I wanted to make use of our experiences working as architects in the UK, Italy, and Lebanon, as well as our training as urban planners at the University College London. We focused on Lebanon, working with communities who have been affected by the Syrian conflict (which is not only limited to Syrian refugees but also to vulnerable Lebanese, Palestinian, and more).

As a first step, we observed that one of the major problems was the lack of educational and recreational facilities for children. According to UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), one in four people in Lebanon are displaced from Syria, and over half of all Syrian refugees are children — making this largely a crisis of children and youth. To address this problem, our first project was the construction of a playground.

Tell us about your particular approach to design.
We tackle each project with three phases: Participatory Planning, Sustainable Design, and Community-Engaged Construction. Each phase is informed and guided by our values. The key to enabling collaboration is to work closely with local partners, who have in-depth knowledge of the place and the local community. Our dialogue with local partners aims at identifying what would be the best way of implementing our participatory approach. For example, participatory engagement can happen in a classroom or it can happen outdoors, we engage with a targeted group of people or we can engage the general public. Each project has a different mode of implementing the participatory model. Over the years, we have developed a set of participatory tools that work most often in most places, but we always welcome new ideas from our partners, from the community, and anyone else who takes part in the collective design process of each project.

The community ownership comes as a result of going through all three phases together, including construction. Women, children, and youth, alongside experienced builders, all participate in the building process. And we accommodate different groups during each phase of the construction to ensure safety; for example, children are present only after all major ground work is done and no hazardous materials are on site. The building process is full of challenges and daily problems to solve collectively, and through this shared experience, a sense of ownership and community gets strengthened.

Basma functions as a school playground and public space, accessible to the town by a main road (Source: CatalyticAction, 2017).

What is the relationship between refugees and the city?
Refugee settlements are just part of cities, like other infrastructures or zones. In Lebanon, there are no formal refugee camps so we can only talk about informal tented settlements (ITS). ITS are formed in multiple ways — there is no one rule. They can be spontaneous gatherings of multiple families who migrated from Syria and decided to temporarily settle in a specific place, often renting the land from a private Lebanese owner. Or, they can be set up by NGOs. The design process at the creation of the ITS depends on the mode in which they are set up and run. Usually spontaneous ITS don’t have a designer that lays out how the tents will be set up, so the families are basically doing the design and building themselves. In the case of an ITS created by an NGO, it is likely that they would organize the tents in a certain way, mostly on an urban grid.

Volunteers prepare building materials for the Basma playground project. The project supported local businesses by prioritizing the use of local materials, craftsmanship, and labour (Source: CatalyticAction, 2017).

Tell us about the ways children participate in the co-design process?
When we ask children to design with us, usually the memories of play (back in Syria or in the past years living in Lebanon) help us structure the discussion around the playground design, what games to include, and what kind of spaces to create. They also share aspirations of what kinds of new games they would you like to play, not just their memories. An ITS can present many problems: lack of services (sewage, water, etc.), as well as lack of adequate spaces for children. Our work has focused on the provision of educational spaces for children, which we believe will have a long-term positive impact on their development.

As part of the Basma playground project, building facades are transformed by graphic elements co-designed and painted by children, visually connecting the building to its surrounding public space (Source: CatalyticAction, 2017).

How do you approach a space that is temporary, yet can persist indefinitely? 
The main challenge that this brings is that it is really hard to drastically improve the living conditions in an ITS. For example, you could think about ways of improving the quality of the tents, provide sewage, or water connection, all of this is not possible as the ITS are conceived as temporary settlements. Here we enter a complex political debate, but obviously there are multiple reasons why this condition is hard to challenge. In our work, we have only managed to partially challenge this condition by working closely with the local municipalities to find architectural compromises to this condition. To give you an example, when we built the Jarahieh School we had to present the project in details to the municipality to show them the building technologies we were using and show them that the school can be dismantled in the future if needed. Yet, the school is a high-quality space for children to learn and for the community to host activities.

Another option is to work outside the ITS. There are many wonderful examples of work where abandoned or unfinished buildings have been refurbished and used as housing for refugees. The host community benefits from incentives on the refurbishment costs and the refugee community can access adequate housing at a lower cost (with the financial support of an NGO).

Children participate in safe phases of the building process, such as painting facades. One girl who participated in the design processed shared: “I am here to build the playground with you, so when I go back to Syria, I can build one myself.” (Sources: CatalyticAction, 2017, reSITE Small Talks, 2016).

What are some the essential qualities of public space that benefit children? 
Each space is different and it depends on the specific needs of the community. As part of our design process, we consult with experts in child development who have experience supporting children who have experienced psychological trauma. Their input is very important to understand what would be the best space to address some of the specific needs that children might have. For example, we place a lot of focus on creating space where children can play and release their energy as this is something really important to limit certain violent behaviors that are common in children who experience psychological trauma. Another type of space we focus on designing is one that triggers creativity and imagination. Also, creating games that foster collaboration and mutual respect is really important in this context.

To learn more about the global refugee crisis and its impact on cities and urbanization, here are a few suggested reads:

Learn more about more projects by CatalyticAction here and follow the City as a Service for more stories about inclusive city design.